Last night was Mitt Romney’s evening, as just about everyone in America seems to agree this morning. It promises to be remembered as a historic upset in the annals of presidential debating, and will doubtless long be discussed.
There is much to be said about that encounter, but I’ll focus on one small but fascinating—and quite possibly portentous—moment in the debate: The part where Romney got going about food stamps.
Here’s what Romney said:
…when the president took office, 32 million people [were] on food stamps; 47 million [are] on food stamps today. Economic growth this year slower than last year, and last year slower than the year before. Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today.
The president was stunned and apparently dumbfounded by this formulation; in any case he had no retort to it. Perhaps this was because Romney had just recast the argument about “means tested” entitlements in a way that Team Obama had never really considered, and could not readily respond to.
Implicit in Romney’s attack was the notion that acceptance of mean-tested government benefits is a sign of desperation—and that an increase in national recipience of such benefits is proof of failing social and economic policies.
For a great many Americans, this argument will resonate powerfully—indeed, it implicitly draws on the tradition of fierce self-reliance in which the American conception of “independence” was originally cast.
By contrast, in Obamaworld, participation in all manner of public benefit programs is a thing to be celebrated—just look at the re-election team’s now-famous “Julia” ads, which recount the ways that the US government’s many entitlement programs (programs the president promises to defend and expand) enhance the life of an attractive young woman from birth through old age.
Is our rising prevalence of entitlement recipience a sign of national success—or of national failure?
Last night Romney argued the latter. In the context of the debate, it was a stroke of political jiu jitsu that floored his opponent.
Politics, as pundits like to say these days, is about “narratives”. If this narrative about entitlements carries, we may finally get around to the national debate about the entitlement problem that we as a society have avoided for the past generation.
Want to learn more? Check out Nick Eberstadt’s latest book, Nation of Takers.